Time to thaw: the human side of the research funding freeze

Researchers who have sometimes been waiting years for funding have been left in the lurch by government. Research image from www.shutterstock.com

The Australian Research Council’s confirmation that all funding awards and rounds are currently frozen has caused major concern, if not panic, in academic circles.

The Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) announcement is slated for early next week - possibly as early as Monday - and will hopefully provide answers to the storm of funding freeze questions. Senior university figures and key organisations such as Universities Australia have rushed to caution the government against short-term budget balancing at the expense of the nation’s research future.

But the human cost of this uncertainty and potential slashing of research opportunities is real and very substantial. As Professor Lesley Head, an Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Wollongong, put it: “the ivory tower is full of people; people with partners, families, homes, lives.” But these lives have been put on hold.

Right now, the single ARC Linkage round for 2012 has failed to open. When you consider that to develop a competitive ARC grant application takes a year or so, you can see why researchers would be a little distressed. But when you understand that some researchers have taken years to build strong industry partnerships for an ARC grant, then it’s not just a wasted year. The freeze can jeopardise that relationship and ultimately, the career of the researcher.

Charlie Huang, from RMIT’s School of Management, has been painstakingly preparing his Linkage application since April this year and developing his relationship with his industry partner, Sinosteel Midwest Corporation, for years before this.

“I’m very disappointed to learn that the government may freeze ARC funding as I have worked intensively with my potential co-investigator and industry partner to identify and develop a research project that is of national significance and benefit to the Australian mining industry,” Dr Huang said. “A freeze could have a major impact on opportunities for us to collaborate with industry in the future.”

Not only does a freeze have the potential to derail university and industry projects that have long been incubated, it also severely compromises the attraction of Australia as a place to do research. Eva Alisic, a Monash University Larkins Fellow who has also been awarded two major international fellowships (a Marie Curie fellowship from the EU, and a Rubicon fellowship from the Dutch Research Council), arrived from the Netherlands in 2011.

She describes Australia as a “very interesting destination for international researchers”, with engaging research and funding possibilities.

“It’s crucial to ensure continuity and reliability in research funding,” said Dr Alisic. “Otherwise, you’ll see fewer internationals taking the risk to move here and more domestic researchers going overseas.” She said Australia should be trying to avoid a “brain drain”.

Cancelling or postponing funding rounds will also curtail opportunities for excellent Early Career Researchers (ECRs) in Australia. The ARC Discovery ECR Award (DECRA) scheme is only two years old, and only one round has ever been awarded. The success rate was a challenging 12%.

The second round’s results are currently in limbo. With a restriction on how many years post-PhD you can be to apply, holding off on a round can mean that many potential applicants will miss out completely because they will become ineligible. Even if special dispensation is given because of a freeze, the glutting of futures round will mean a very poor chance of success for applicants.

Vanessa Cooper, who works in RMIT’s School of Business IT and Logistics and researches Green IT, has been waiting on this year’s DECRA results since March. This is the last year that she is eligible to apply for this scheme.

“While DECRA applicants all go into the grants process knowing a successful outcome is a long-shot,” said Dr Cooper, “any decision that decreases the funds available, or results in more applications being considered in any given round, will increase that long-shot to the extent that I would seriously question whether the months spent slaving over an application are worth it.”

This is a shame, according to Cooper, as “a key reason the scheme was introduced in the first place was recognition of the need to support and advance early career researchers in this country.”

Next week’s MYEFO news will hopefully at least provide some certainty around what the government intends to do on research funding, particularly regarding the ARC. If the rumour-mill is proven correct and there are cancelled rounds and postponed awards, Australian research funding may well be moving into what QUT research fellow, Ben Kraal, has called “El Nino territory”. But we simply can’t afford for research in Australia to go into a long dry spell, that could take years to recover from.

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